Woodsmoke

"You don't have to believe this story," he'd say, his cracked old voice flexing as the fire burnt in the pits of his eyes, "But it helps."

The first thing you need to know is that I never found out his name. Must have seen him every day for about seven years, and I never even found out his name. Not that he cared. He rarely spoke, except to tell his stories. If you were listening, you were his friend and his family all in one, the crutch of his being. His voice was tired and lazy, and words came out as if by accident. He'd sit by the fire every night, older than the rest of us by a couple of decades and twice as battered. Big blue eyes stared into the fire out of violet shadows, his skin as tattered and as folded as old paper. The old man's top hat, the colour of cheap wine, balanced on his wiry hair, and tucked his face into darkness. As the fire blazed, just the blue of his eyes could be seen, and in their ancient depths brighter eyes burned.

And the stories would start.

The cracked old voice would turn into liquid steel, and it shaped every word with such precision that the old man turned into an artist. Each word was a note on a sheet of music. He must have known every story ever written; every thought fermenting in the mind of a poet. Old gods, and djinns, and genies and valkyries, were sitting with him, waiting their turn to live through him. The sounds of their voices were on the edges of his; their lives and deeds were etched into his head, like battle scars. Beautiful, dark old stories; older than him. Fairy tales as they were meant to be told: against the firelight, with woodsmoke to deliver them. They were never pleasant. "Fairy godmother had to skin the squirrels to make Cinderella's slippers," he said.

He was cemented into the daily lives of Nancy's regulars by his stories, and we'd all listen. A bunch of strangers united for a while in glory against the bloated fatigue of the world outside. Then, as time went on, less people listened. Less people could. Lives needed living, money needed making – there was no need for old stories, and old men to tell them. Three years went by before I went back to Nancy's.

He wasn't there.

I never saw him again. Now a fat television takes up his spot, beside the blocked up fireplace, and we are all strangers again. There's no woodsmoke anymore, and the old gods have fled. Nobody really remembers him, or his stories. Such a shame: he spent the last years of his life telling dead old tales, and nobody – nobody in the world it seems – ever found out his.